Thursday 23 January 2020

Editorial: 'Brexit is moving on - but we are still stuck in the middle'

DEALS: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston at Government Buildings in Dublin last September. Photo: Damien Eagers
DEALS: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston at Government Buildings in Dublin last September. Photo: Damien Eagers
Editorial

Editorial

The Taoiseach has struck an optimistic note about the Brexit intentions of newly renewed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Leo Varadkar has said his impression is that Mr Johnson will want an EU-UK trade deal that will be close. He has even ventured the view that the UK leader will want a new relationship with his European neighbours which goes beyond matters economic into political co-operation.

But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we are only approaching the "end of the beginning" on Brexit. The Taoiseach has also acknowledged that Ireland's position, over the coming year particularly, remains as perilous as ever - and if anything the Brexit risks to our economic well-being have increased.

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Mr Johnson will achieve his aim of taking the UK out of the European Union by January 31. The result of last Thursday's UK general election definitively means that there will be no more of the parliamentary defeats and deadlock which scarred the British political system for the last three-and-a-half years.

The UK government will this week introduce the draft law to give effect to the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. The MPs will vote its second stage on Friday and it will swiftly make its way through both Houses of Parliament early in the new year.

But things then get even more tricky as talks open in February on how to frame a new relationship between the UK and the European Union.

The central issue will be British hopes of winning a free trade deal, without any tariffs or quotas, with their largest and closest trading partner.

The good news for Ireland is that that huge issue will be headed on the EU side by the Irish Commissioner, Phil Hogan. The EU Trade Commissioner will of course be acting, in line with his oath of office, in the broader European interest. But he has an unparalleled insight into Ireland's vital interest in this regard.

Beyond trade, the new EU-UK relationship will include things like security co-operation, migration, education, fisheries, education and a host of other issues. This mammoth task will be co-ordinated by the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who has also proved a loyal friend to Ireland thus far.

But the word from Brussels is that the re-elected UK prime minister will have to make a significant change in his attitude if a serious and damaging clash is to be avoided.

Potential problems turn around two issues: the negotiating timeframe and UK threats to depart from EU standards.

Throughout his election campaign, Mr Johnson insisted that there would be no need to extend the no-change transition period, which as things stand will expire on December 31 next year.

That leaves a net nine months for negotiations which open in February and would have to be done by October to allow the new arrangements to be ratified. Mr Johnson has until July to seek a transition period extension.

The other threat to deviate from EU standards raises the real threat of tariffs and quotas, which would badly hurt Irish trade.

Irish Independent

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